He wasn't mentioned by name, but recent financial
statements released by BW Technologies Ltd. paid a silent
but specific compliment to the ingenuity of Sean Costall,
P.Eng., one of the Calgary manufacturer's core of 15 staff
16-year-old company supplies top-drawer, low-cost gas detection
equipment to global markets and reported its 16th successive
quarter of year-over-year sales growth last month.
And driving those sales was a slick, sturdy and compact new
gizmo called the GasAlertMicro. It's a concussion-proof, triple-alarm
unit, able to sniff out traces of oxygen, hydrogen sulphide
and carbon monoxide, as well as a range of combustible gases.
The Micro weighs a smidgen more than 200 grams and sits comfortably
in the palm of your hand.
Designed primarily by Mr. Costall, a 33-year-old senior design
engineer who's been with the company since graduating from
the University of Alberta nine years ago, the Micro replaced
a five-year-old tool known as the Defender. He designed it,
"The Defender was originally developed because of a perceived
need in the marketplace," Mr. Costall explains. "The
reasoning was this: The manufacturer that's first to build
a four-gas detector for less than $1,000 wins," he adds
with a mischievous smile.
The older-generation Defender remains an excellent tool. But
it's larger, somewhat clumsier and not as technologically
quick-witted as the feature-packed Micro.
The Quick and the Good
The current star among a sizeable product line, which also
includes disposable and water-resistant gas detectors, the
Micro was a logical next step in product development for BW.
It is, after all, a $54-million public company with an expanding
market share and a management team on a mission to crank out
new, improved products every year.
A genuine Alberta success story, BW Technologies (BWT-TSX)
spends as much as $4 million a year on R&D and relies
on its energetic home-office team - specialists such as Mr.
Costall - to spend the bucks wisely. It all adds up to an
extremely stimulating work environment for a creative and
Cody Slater, the CEO and president of BW, explains that the
current economic climate renders it all the more important
that his design groups be on the ball. Despite last quarter's
healthy revenues, earnings dropped off as a direct result
of the shrinking value of the U.S. dollar.
"The speed at which the U.S. dollar has declined was
a problem," Mr. Slater says. "Most of our costs
are fixed in Canadian dollars," the value of which has
remained surprisingly strong.
He quickly adds he doesn't see the North American dollar disparity
as an insurmountable problem. "Our increasing volumes
will overcome the differential in the dollar. Another solution
is to concentrate on our continuing use of engineering to
drive our costs down."
That's the perpetual challenge facing Mr. Costall and his
Say No to Price Increases
Mr. Slater calls it smart engineering: using improved technology
to build better products at lower costs, while refusing to
compromise on quality.
"And since we focus on remaining the low-cost leader
in our market, an increase in our prices is not something
we want to consider, either," adds the CEO.
By developing the GasAlertMicro, Mr. Costall was able to touch
every base. "The major premise was to keep it as small
as possible. But we wanted it to be equipped with our existing,
proven, high-quality sensors. Our customers need a high-degree
of confidence in their sensors, and we didn't want to cut
corners just to minimize costs," Mr. Costall says.
"Fitting everything into a shell that's about two-thirds
the size of the previous model (the Defender) was the major
Nonetheless, it came about fast. From conception to production,
development of the new product took only six months.
And once BW Technologies' crack sales team went to work, response
was rapid and enthusiastic from the energy companies, chemical
processing plants, sewage and waste water processing systems,
and oil tankers that installed the new Micro.
Since then, Mr. Costall has been working on product upgrades,
to make the Micro smarter still, while tweaking and adding
features as a direct result of customer feedback.
He and his colleagues also remain hard at work at BW's beautiful
southeast Calgary manufacturing facility, dreaming up the
Next Big Thing.
Before saying goodbye, a visitor poses one last impertinent
question to the accommodating Mr. Costall: "Did they
give you a raise for helping develop the Micro?"
He replies with a sudden grin: "They did, actually."
Now that's job satisfaction.